Thursday, April 15, 2010

Vehicular Arachnophobia

I was the guest speaker at the American Business Women's Association dinner today on the topic of professional writing and writing for the web. After my presentation, a city councilwoman and candidate for Oakland County Commissioner asked me to develop the website for her campaign. Needless to say, I was feeling good, decidedly accomplished and professional, as I climbed into my car to drive home.

Ten minutes later, I was feeling decidedly unprofessional as I crouched shivering in the dark in the passenger seat of my car, parked on the side of the highway with cars rocking my car as they rushed past. I had been driving at 70 mph, already brainstorming website ideas for my new potential project, when a spider crept into my line of vision across the inside of my windshield.

What happens when I typically see a spider happened this time, regardless of the fact that I was speeding down the highway. I went into escape mode. I cut over two lanes, screeched to a stop on the shoulder and literally threw myself away from the spider and into the passenger seat. My high heels, small sporty car with limited space, and extra body weight didn't slow me down a bit. If I'd been a cartoon character, I would have left a little cloud of smoke that said "pffft" or "zoom" behind me in the driver's seat.

Though they all seem enormous to me, I'll admit, this wasn't a super huge spider. It wasn't a tarantula. But it was one of those sturdy little fat ones that scare me far more than the whispy long-legged variety. Its body was the size of a thumbtack, and legs included, it was maybe the size of a quarter. But the size and shape of the spider isn't really important here. Even its attitude isn't all that important, although this was a particularly active little sucker with a skittery, jumpy kind of personality. What's important is that it was a spider at all and currently in my personal space.

I've always been terrified of spiders. I can't see them on TV or even read about them in a book. I think this phobia comes from the fact that my dad used to make my mom squish spiders in our house when I was growing up. If my big, strong dad was afraid of a little spider, it was safe to assume they were deadly, terrifying creatures and I should fear them, too.

If a spider appears in my home these days, I typically get all lightheaded and scream for my husband. If it's late, and he's already in bed, I've learned not to wake him -- even if that means I have to abandon whatever I was doing and leave the room until later. This has happened more than once when I've prepared to take a bath in the evening. When my husband walks in the bathroom in the morning to find the tub full of cold water, he knows I abandoned my bath for the safety of the bedroom the night before. If he's awake, my husband either kills them for me or scoops them up and takes them outside. He often mocks me gently while he does this, thoroughly entertained and equally exasperated by my shaking and uncontrollable clothes brushing. (I'm always convinced there's a second spider lurking somewhere in my hair or clothing when a spider has been spotted.) I fear dead spiders as much as live ones, so I need him to tell me the spider is gone - I can't look at the tissue for confirmation.

Sometimes, I get the nerve to tackle spiders on my own. I have a hard time killing them with a tissue. It puts me too close to the spider. Instead, I scramble for something with reach - the bathroom is a convenient place for this, as I can use air freshener, hairspray or some kind of cleaning product to attack the offender from a distance. If it's a big one or one that seems immune to chemical showers, I typically abandon the room as previously noted. Once, when in my car on the way to a job interview, I managed to get my hands on an aerosol can of wrinkle releaser and sprayed the spider over my shoulder until it was cemented against the rear window. I can only imagine what I smelled like walking into that interview.

This time, there was nothing in reach and I was trapped inside with the spider. I couldn't just run from the room. Unfortunately, I had also just cleaned out my car, so I didn't even have a tissue. After five solid minutes spent shaking in the passenger's seat, I dug around in my briefcase in the backseat and produced a scrap of paper. I couldn't seem to make myself do anything about the spider that had stopped on the windshield across from the steering wheel and seemed to be looking at me. I realized I was being ridiculous and finally got up the nerve to smash at the spider with my eyes closed. I sat and chewed my nails for a few minutes after, waiting to see if the spider might have somehow escaped the smush.

Nothing happened, so I got out of the car, came around to the driver's side, and got in after a few moments of inspecting the seat for any sister spiders. I pulled back onto the highway and went a few more miles before I saw the spider on the windshield again. It had escaped certain death. Once again, I screamed, freaked out, and made it to the side of the road without hitting anyone. I launched myself into the backseat this time. Now I was shaking and crying.

My speaking engagement was only 10 miles from home, and yet it was now almost an hour since I had left there. I started to worry how I was going to get home. I felt powerless. I'd been carjacked by an arachnid. I started to think of ways to call my husband to come and get me without telling him it was because of a spider. Could I tell him my car was acting funny? Have him come get me and ask him to drive my car home to "test it out" while I followed in his car? I also began to worry that someone might stop on the road to help me. Here I was at 10pm at night on the side of the road with my hazards and interior dome light on. How humiliating it would be to explain to a patrol officer or good Samaritan that my car was okay, I was just scared of a spider.

As often happens when I'm confronted with a spider, my thoughts began to race -- and I knowingly started coming up with all kinds of irrational thoughts. This spider was out to get me, because I had killed two spiders already this week. (One crawled across the keys of my laptop while I was writing late Tuesday night and then later, the same night, I sprayed one with Tilex mildew remover in the bathroom.) This spider was revenging for his relatives. I knew this was totally ridiculous, but three spiders in one week was simply overwhelming.

Finally, I called my husband. I explained that I was on the side of the road and completely paralyzed because of a spider. As he's done before, he literally talked me off the ledge, telling me all the stuff I already knew, but in the calm, reasonable voice that I needed: "It's more scared of you than you are of it", "It can't hurt you", "Just take some deep breaths, get a tissue out of the bag in the trunk, and kill it."

By the time I found a tissue in the trunk and readied myself to try another squish, the spider had disappeared. This was more horrifying than having to kill it, because now it could be anywhere. It could rappel down from the roof and land on my head. It could be on the steering wheel and, God forbid, crawl across my hand while I was driving!

I looked everywhere. Finally, I convinced myself he had gone into hiding and climbed back into the car. I drove too fast to get home and tried not to look anywhere but straight ahead. I used the tissue to hold the steering wheel. I didn't use my blinkers for fear of moving my hands into the shadows. The most embarrassing part is that I talked mean to the spider on the way home. "You better just watch it. I've got a tissue now," I said threateningly. I also called it names.

When I got home, I sprang out of the car and rubbed myself all over. My husband came out on the porch, shaking his head at the little frantic dance he's seen me do many times before. I changed clothes immediately and brushed my hair like crazy before I finally settled down.

After this latest incident, I realize I probably need some help with this problem, and not just a spider fogging in my car or a Dustbuster in my glove compartment. One of these days, I'm going to get myself into a car accident or my husband is going to get tired of being married to a freakbag. I need to overcome this irrational, paralyzing fear. Admittedly, the thought of having to confront my fears in therapy is a strong deterrent to seeking help. I've seen those TV shows where the TV therapists make the patients surround themselves with what they fear.

Statistics claim half of all women and 10% of all men have some level of spider phobia. I'm not sure what the statistics are on the number of people who kill themselves in car accidents because they saw a spider, but I'd have to guess it's low. Regardless, I'm pretty sure Death by Spider-induced Car Crash is a crummy and rather humiliating cause of death on the coroner's report. I suppose that makes me open to your doctor referrals.

P.S. - I usually try to include a picture of some kind with my blog posts. I tried. I googled "spiders". And then I had to close the page for fear the six pictures of spiders would come alive and crawl out of the screen onto my hands.


  1. I think everyone is afraid of something. Maybe you should start an arachnophobia support group!

  2. I could try. But then I'd have to talk about spiders.